Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★½

One of these days, Denzel will hire a director who sees August Wilson’s work as something more than just an acting showcase. Today is not that day.

I understand the difficulty Ruben Santiago Hudson may have had in adapting this into a movie but I wish he had erred on the side of not adding or embellishing on Wilson’s work. Having read the entirety of the Pittsburgh Cycle this year, there’s a genius to just how insular the plays are. One setting movies can be divisive but with the right editing rhythm and shot selection, they can be just as enthralling as any multiple setting movie. I hate that the screenplay leaves the studio several times throughout the film. The claustrophobia of the one-setting in this narrative is essential to the mounting suspense. The walls are closing in on Levee and Ma Rainey so any shot that breaks us out of these few rooms releases the building pressure, however slight it is. Hudson knew and lived with Wilson’s words longer than I have been alive (he was in several of his plays and a close friend) so I don’t blame him so much as I do the obvious pressures from production in addition to the fact that Ma Rainey may not be as well known outside music history circles. The cinematic version I want to see of this play is akin to what Welles did in his Shakespeare adaptations; a hard swing for the fences. Get us Dee Rees, Terence Nance, Gina Prince Bythewood, Barry Jenkins, or pull Charles Burnett (perfect choice for RADIO GOLF btw) out of retirement so that we can see what kind of spin they can put on Wilson that makes him feel as alive and immediate as he did when I watched a touring production of JITNEY at 16. We’ve seen the safe, respectable way, now let’s play.

*Obligatory give Chadwick/Viola Oscars sentence*

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